Bailly the man to partner Lindelof as Mourinho weighs up United options
Manchester United endured a frustrating season, redeemed only by their qualification for the Champions League. One of the prouder aspects of their campaign was their defensive record in the Premier League, which was second only to Tottenham.
Jose Mourinho's men conceded 29 times in 38 matches, compared to Tottenham's 26. Yet all was not well at the heart of that defence, whose conservatism in passing the ball forward often meant that United's attack was not nearly as effective as it should have been.
With Victor Lindelof arriving from Benfica, here's a look at Mourinho's options in central defence, starting with what appears to be his likely pairing: the Swede and Eric Bailly.
Eric Bailly, 23 years old, 35 starts in all competitions in 2016-17
Bailly was a superb signing. By a distance United's best centre-back of the season, he showed excellent timing, distribution and strength. He looks set to be the mainstay in United's back line for years to come, with his derby performance away to Manchester City in the Premier League a particular highlight. He's an exceptional acquisition who can claim to have provided part of the foundation for United's return to prominence.
Victor Lindelof, 22 years old, 43 starts (for Benfica)
There is a great deal of anticipation around the arrival of the Swede from Benfica, and given his record that is no surprise. In 2016 he was named in the Champions League's Breakthrough XI, and he has won three league titles at Benfica. He has the complete range of skills as a defender, being a fine passer, a gifted reader of the game and a formidable physical presence. His abilities should provide an excellent blend with those of Bailly, alongside whom he could be starting for many years in a United shirt.
Phil Jones, 25 years old, 22 starts
Jones is now entering his seventh season at Old Trafford. During that time, largely due to his utterly luckless record with injuries, he has played only 168 times, an average of 28 games a season. Unfortunately, that alone makes him unreliable as a long-term answer to United's defensive questions. This is a shame since some of his best performances have been as good as any seen in a United shirt in recent times, such as that away to Real Madrid in the Champions League in Sir Alex Ferguson's final season. Jones' challenge now, though, other than his fitness, is the lapses of concentration that streak through his play -- something in which he is far from alone at United.
Chris Smalling, 27 years old, 22 starts
Smalling should have established himself as United's leading centre-back, but the fact he has not says much for his injury record and, latterly, his loss of form. There has perhaps also been a sense that, even at his best, he was below the elite level that United needed to be a force in Europe. Madrid won a double of domestic league and Champions League with Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos as their centre-backs -- in such a squad, which United given their resources should aspire to rival, Smalling would not find himself as a regular starter.
Marcos Rojo, 27 years old, 30 starts
The surprise -- maybe even the delight, if that's pushing it a little -- of United's central defence. It might seem strange that a World Cup finalist, as Rojo was in 2014 with Argentina, should arrive at Old Trafford with something to prove, but that was very much his predicament. Best suited to playing as a left-sided centre back in a back four or back three, Rojo immediately stood out for his sharp and accurate passing over medium range into feet and his desire to get forward. The flipside of that latter trait, sadly, was a constant failure of attention to defensive detail, and a conspicuously short fuse. However, Rojo found -- to almost everyone's surprise, perhaps even his own -- a tremendous level of discipline and consistency under Mourinho, meaning that his long-term injury towards the end of last season deprived the club of their second-best centre-back behind Bailly. Truly a year of redemption for him.
Daley Blind, 27 years old, 28 starts
The Dutch utility man has always filled in at centre-back without complaint. The criticism of him for some time was that his lack of pace was never quite offset by his excellent positioning and anticipation -- unfortunately, though, he became prone last year to some of the same lapses that beset Smalling and Jones. However, when called upon for his very best, he was superb in the final of the Europa League, helping his team to a clean sheet and a 2-0 win over Ajax. Will always be a fine option from the bench, just as Phil Neville was years before him.
Matteo Darmian, 27 years old, 23 starts
Mourinho mostly favoured him as a full-back last season, giving him a very conservative brief, but he also deployed him now and then as a centre-back. He typified the no-risk approach to defence under his manager, not featuring too much in the season's early months -- he had a tendency to grapple and panic a little when defending set-pieces -- but a regular starter by its close. His passing was not ambitious enough to launch United on the counter and it is likely that he will be used as back-up in the seasons to come, given United's activity in the transfer market.
Axel Tuanzebe, 19 years old, four starts
Clearly very gifted, also capable of playing in defensive midfield, Tuanzebe showed notable composure during his few outings, and if he continues in that vein he may well leap the queue ahead of Jones, at least. Retained the ball simply, used it effectively, and showed that he could prove an excellent option for Mourinho during a congested fixture list.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.